Transgender students face challenges from Columbia and in the classroom 

Learning Acceptance

click to enlarge Amy Reed and her son Luke, who is a transgender student at Ashley Ridge High School

Jonathan Boncek

Amy Reed and her son Luke, who is a transgender student at Ashley Ridge High School

His name is Luke. He's 16 years old. A sophomore at Ashley Ridge High School, he plays the violin and has a love for animals that he hopes will develop into a career as a wildlife veterinarian. He has all the challenges that go along with being in school — the tests, the homework, but on top of all that, Luke and his fellow transgender students face added worries that can arise anytime in the classroom.

"I was called up to the front office. It was for a good thing, but when they called my legal name out in front of the class, I was really angry. I feel like they outed me in front of the whole class," says Luke. "I wasn't totally out to most everyone. Only a few people knew, and she just outed me. It's sort of become like my normal because I know it might happen with substitutes and just teachers not knowing that I prefer to be called Luke or understanding that."

This year Luke double-checked to make sure his preferred name was in the yearbook. He also had to ask that his name be changed on his school ID, and he helped another transgender student do the same. These are the sorts of things that may seem minor to some people, but they can make all the difference in ensuring a student feels comfortable in school.

"I went through a lot last year. I know I still have a lot more to go through," Luke says. "Last year, people were asking questions like, 'What do you have? What's in your pants?' They were asking me personal questions like that and about being transgender. I didn't want to answer the question to be honest, but I knew if I didn't say anything they wouldn't shut up about it."

After that first year, Luke says things have gotten better for him. The intrusive questions from the other kids have died down. But some problems still remain. When Luke first entered high school, he was told he couldn't use the boy's restroom. Instead he was offered the nurse's bathroom, tucked away far from his classes. His goal as a junior is to have access to the men's faculty bathrooms that are on almost every hall. By the time he graduates, he simply wants to be allowed to use the boys' bathroom. This is a hope he shares with students all across the state and the country.

The View from Columbia

Last week during a Senate subcommittee hearing, Sens. Lee Bright and Joel Lourie heard from members of the transgender community, LGBT advocates, and a few proponents of a bill to ban local governments from passing legislation that would allow people to use bathrooms and changing rooms based on their gender identity. Similar to legislation recently passed in North Carolina, Bright said he introduced the bill as a way to protect women and children using public facilities. His effort drew little support, but what it did accomplish was to highlight the everyday struggles of the transgender citizens of South Carolina.

"I think what was most overwhelming or powerful was the fact that the vast majority of people in the room were in opposition of the bill. So tons of support for the transgender community, which was really encouraging," says Chase Glenn, chair and CEO of the Charleston Pride Festival, who traveled to Columbia to address the senators. "I think we're in a really great place here in South Carolina, where we are going to see it defeated, just from what I've heard. ... In other states where there is very similar legislation, in Tennessee right now, they're in the fight of their lives. It's very possible that it will go through there. The reality is that any time there is legislation introduced like this, it's drawing attention to innocent people who are just trying to use the bathroom and go about their daily lives, and it puts targets on their backs."

Both Charleston and North Charleston have non-discrimination ordinances in place, but gender identity isn't always explicitly protected in much of South Carolina. According to Glenn, it is also important for cities and municipalities to establish comprehensive non-discrimination policies across the state and fill in the gaps when it comes to protective laws that are already on the books.

"We need that to happen, and then education. That's a constant for those of us who are organizers and activists in the state," says Glenn. "It's a constant action that we need to take, which is educating the general public, and there are organizations that are doing that. And it takes not just transgender people to do that education. We really do rely on our allies throughout the state that are not trans, who can be a voice of reason and provide information about what it means to be trans and garner more acceptance across the board."

A Teaching Moment

When it comes to acceptance and education, there's no better place to start than the classroom. Unlike many districts, Charleston County has a policy in place that specifically protects students from bullying based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression. In 2014, local LGBT advocacy groups We Are Family and the Alliance for Full Acceptance worked with faculty and staff in the district to inform educators about the issues faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students across the county.

"There is still actually a lot of work to be done in the schools. What we are doing more often than not is getting contacted by individual schools who are asking for us to do programs or training, as opposed to a district-wide event," says Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance. "We'll usually do something at an annual meeting, but the district has not at this point put in place any sort of mandated training. It's really left up to principals or district personnel to invite someone in to do some training for teachers or guidance counselors."

In Redman-Gress' opinion, Charleston County has a strong written policy in place, but the issue comes down to how it is enforced. So often, the ways policies are carried out depends upon the culture of a school that's developed by a principal. Ultimately, schools can create a more welcoming environment as long as administrators take the time and effort to learn what is important to LGBT students.

"Do we recognize the diversity in our students in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity?" asks Redman-Gress. "I'm sure you'll find that if you went from school to school that each school is going to be very different. ... Some are great, and some are not so great."

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